In the last decade serious books about alchemy started to appear, not depicting it just as early chemistry, but as an ancient tradition with a material and a spiritual side. Peter Marshall is a writer with a long bibliography with books on upbringing, politics, psychology, etc. and he definately does not seem to be an expert on the esoteric. For this book Marshall has travelled around the world for about two years searching for the philosopher’s stone in China, India, Egypt, the Middle-East and Europe resulting in the biggest book on alchemy that I have encountered (about 450 pages). Inspite of the quantity of pages, the writer’s “discoveries” and descriptions of his “investigations”, this book doesn’t give more information than a descent 100-pager. Also it seems as if Marshall ‘found out’ a lot, but I didn’t find much new information here.
Marshall tries to write in a Baigent/Leigh travel-account-with-information style, but his writing style is fairly chaotic and at times irritating (saying “I discovered”, “when I was meditating”, “I was surprised to find out”, etc. all the time) and my Dutch translation is also done in a pretty sloppy manner (or did they want to copy Marshall’s sloppy writing-style with wrong words, sentences that don’t run well, either or not translate titles of books or sayings from other languages, etc.?). Fortunately this becomes better after a few chapters, but comes back again at the end. Marshall writes about his own experiences and thoughts too much when he should have better sticked to the information.
Also in the beginning when he describes his journeys through the east, it is very obvious that Eastern religions aren’t his speciality Also fortunately he seems more in his element in Egypt and Europe and the chapters about these are much better.
A rather irritating thing is that Marshall seems to use the word “alchemy” for anything “spiritual” calling Taoism “alchemy” and talking about alchemy in the Vedas, etc. But it is quite nice to read about the early traditions of China and especially Taoism from which Chinese alchemy came forth. Marshall interviewed experts, visits places and investigates writings himself.
After China he goes to India where another tradition of alchemy started around the same time as in China (about 2000 BC) and also here Marshall talks with scholars, modern alchemists and goes to sightings and libraries.
Then Egypt is the next step in his investigation. Marshall gets permissions to visits tombs and temples closed for the normal human eye and has his usual talks, investigations and visits.
Moving more towards Europe the subject often strays off to other traditions such as Gnosticism and Hermeticism and Marshall read/studied a lot of original works in Europe’s libraries and museums, visits ancient places and cities and towards the end of the book, tries to find nowadays alchemists. Being probably the most recent book on alchemy written, it comes closest to recent times. Sadly enough even here Marshall didn’t manage to give new information, besides a few nice remarks about the WWII times.
So, you may ask, better skip this book for another one if I want to learn about alchemy? Well, maybe not. Marshall’s book has a good index, the structure is good, there is a wonderfull glossary of symbols of terms and a massive bibliography. Yep, Marshall did his homework well, but he could have saved himself a lot of work if he had started reading some recent works.
Conclusion: this book is definately a good buy if you want a reference-book on alchemy, but when you want something enjoyable to read and to learn, you better buy a thinner one that focuses more on the information.
Closer off: I depicted both the original English cover and the cover of the Dutch translation. Not only you will see how differently the covers were chosen, but also the title differs. Also striking are the different translations of the Latin term “Lapis Philosophicus”, in English by “the philosopher’s stone”, in Dutch by “the stone of the wise”.